Friday, March 12, 2010


I did this small (11" x 14" Arches cold press 140#) painting for a group that has a project to do a botanical painting. I did mine the old-fashioned way - white background, trying to keep the colors very pure, no surroundings to the plant/flower. But I've since seen paintings from the American Society of Botanical Painters that paint these in a lot of different ways and they are still botanical - and some artists call any plant/flower painting a botanical.

So what makes a painting a botanical painting? According to the book I have,

According to the book by Wunderlich, botanical watercolors began to be seen in the 16th century, resulting from Europe's growing passion for flowering garden plants. People wanted picture books showing the flowers they might want to grow in their gardens to replace the vegetables and herbs they were used to growing. Hence, the botanical illustration, shared in books and prints throughout Europe. Botanical illustrations are usually painted as close to life size as possible of the plant/flower being portrayed but you can do them in "octavo size" which is about 8" x 5" with the plants painted in miniature. You're going to need small brushes if you paint small.

So what does one draw and paint? Well, not just flowers. You can paint wildflowers, trees, ferns, mushrooms and fungi, dried leaves, bark, nuts, and all fruits. African violets, paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, hyacinth, Boston fern and philodendron are among the household plants that will provide you with suitable subjects during the winter months. Or how about small cacti in pots or just regular fuits and vegetables if you have nothing growing around your home right now? Bulbs are good subjects and you can include their root systems - which often add a decorative part of the picture.

The main thing is, you must know the scientific name of the plant/flower/ fruit you are portraying so you can label your painting accurately. And you must try to draw your subject as accurately as possible. And drawing is done on tracing paper with hard leads (from 2H to 8H) because you want delicate lines and the softer leads will smudge. The pale silver color of the hard leads work especially well when working with a white petal or subject - you allow those lines to show and become part of the painting.

White gouache (also called body color) is perfectly acceptable to highlight areas of your subject and to depict hairs, thorns, stamens and leaf veining. You can tint the gouache with colors of watercolor to suit your subject.
It never mentions leaving a white background but most of the traditional botanicals I've seen have no color in the background at all. The newer ones often do have a light or splattered background.
Anyone having more info on this type of painting, please share.


Ann Buckner said...

I like the botanical - great textures. Always fun to shop for art goodies.

Elizabeth Seaver said...

I knew what botanicals were when I saw them, but never knew all of this! Very informative and interesting.

Your watercolor is delicate and lovely.

laura said...

Fascinating history, Rhonda. I love the way your fern (?) is all curled in on itself, and the great texture you have on the stem! Nice job!

Pam Johnson Brickell said...

Lovely! Can't wait to see these come to life.

RHCarpenter said...

Ann, thanks! Glad you like it!
Elizabeth and Laura, yes, I know it's a botanical when I see it but unsure what exactly makes it so and how much the rules can be broken :) Thanks so much - glad you like it. A fiddlehead fern is just any fern that is unfurled like that - young shoots that are eaten.
Thanks, Pam :) I've never eaten a fiddlehead fern - not sure I would eat one since it involves gathering them like this, cooking them and then adding them to something or using butter or garlic with them - taste of asparagus? Or one site said they taste of moss - hmmm...never ate moss, either! haha

Angela said...

These are lovely!

Since you asked - and this is just my opinion - but while I think botanical art and illustration can be done in many styles, I think it does have to have an emphasis on being 'correct' in regards to structure, growth habits and color (unless obviously uncolored) of the plant.

That's why - alas - I never feel like these societies are for me, as much as I admire their members. I just can't imagine sticking to depicting things the way they actually are! :)

There are some extremely 'painterly' botanical artists though - I could just devour Margaret Mee's work!

RHCarpenter said...

Thanks, Angela. I'll have to look up Margaret Mee and see her work.

Chris Beck said...

Lovely fiddleheads, Rhonda!! So sensitively done -- and I love the label script too!!

RHCarpenter said...

Thanks, Chris - and congrats again for being one of the Best of America!!!